On an elevated position of the east staircase hall hangs a large half-length eighteenth century oil painting of a woman, looking proprietorially at all that surrounds her. The painting depicts a likeness of Mary Cowan, daughter of Alderman John Cowan of Londonderry, who in 1737 married her cousin, Alexander Stewart of Stewart’s Court, Ballylawn in County Donegal.
The marriage was a more than satisfactory one, and one which would propel the Stewarts into the upper reaches of the landed classes in Ireland. An heiress, in its proper use of the term, Mary had inherited a large fortune from her unmarried and childless brother, Sir Robert Cowan, Governor of Bombay. Her trustees invested, in 1744, a portion of her fortune thought to be in the region of £42,000, consisting of East India Company Stock, in ‘two extensive manors in County Down, Newtownards and Comber, consisting in all of sixty townlands, which were for sale and might be expected to yield a satisfactory return on the capital investment’. On the banks of Strangford Lough was the glorious Mount Pleasant demesne, now known as Mount Stewart, which would become the family seat of the Stewarts.
It is perhaps too obvious, but important to enunciate that without the marriage to Mary Cowan in 1737, the Stewarts would not have had the sufficient wealth to invest so heavily in landed property, nor embark on the spectacular and successive eighteenth century political careers that her sons and grandsons would so do – political careers that would raise the family from merchant to marquess in only one generation. Not only was their economic position bolstered by Mary Cowan’s marriage settlement, but their social standing in Britain and Ireland rocketed in an unprecedented scale. The Cowan connection was something that the family would reflect upon with admiration throughout the generations - the symbolic dowry chest that she brought to Mount Stewart has remained as a reminder of her significance, and the Cowan China, an enormous suite of 59 items bearing the Cowan armorial on each piece would remain central to the family’s collection.
Dr Neil Watt, House and Collections Manager
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